Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Wonder.
English nurse Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse who ministered to wounded and dying soldiers in the Crimean War, has yet to find her footing since that experience.
She accepts a two-week assignment that will deliver her to a shabby dwelling in Dublin, just outside the village of Athlone, almost dead-center
in that country. She is required to serve as a presence, a watcher of11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who has supposedly lived on nothing but scant spoonfuls of water for over four months. Sharing shifts with another nurse, examining Anna daily, and monitoring every moment to ensure the veracity of the claim, Lib learns that locals have come to believe they are witnessing a miracle in the midst of great poverty and deadly toll of the potato famine. Of a distinctly practical nature, Lib is inclined to suspect fraud, immediately surprised by the lack of guile and sweet nature of the young girl.
A believer in science rather than superstition, Lib is soon immersed in the rituals, beliefs, and dogma of the Roman Catholic faith. Trudging through the peat-filled land, Wright
(a product of The Church of England) is surrounded by the devout, from the elderly physician who forms a committee to reveal the potential miracle to the public to the second witness/nurse, a nun. Sister Michael prays throughout the day with Anna, an image of the family’s dead son keeping ghostly vigil from the mantle. Under the watchful eyes of Wright and Sister Michael, each watches at Anna’s bedside keeping daily charts. Lib puts an end to the visitors who flock to the meager O’Donnell dwelling to offer alms and gifts, wishing only to look upon the face of this holy child kept alive by faith alone: “They meant to put down the flesh and raise up the spirit.”
Lib rigorously performs her duties, irritating Anna’s mother, Rosaleen, whom she suspects of secretly nurturing her daughter. To that end, Lib conscientiously checks for crumbs, searching every possible hiding place for food. She finds nothing: “So full of confidence she’d been--misplaced confidence in her own acuity.” The hours are spent recording her charge’s vitals while Anna murmurs a litany of prayers that fill each day. While her body is showing the signs of deterioration, Anna insists she is surviving on “manna from heaven”, the communion wafer she consumed at Mass the day before her eleventh birthday the only solid food Anna has had save the occasional scant teaspoons of water.
Keeping visitors at bay--even family (“everybody was a repository of secrets”)--Lib vacillates between utter disbelief and an emotional attachment to this fey, prayerful child who grows more ill as the days pass. She continues her surveillance, witnessing Anna’s torturous demise, quietly begging the girl to relinquish her quest for death. Oddly enough, Wright’s only comfort comes from her few rushed conversations with another roomer at the boarding house where she sleeps, a journalist sent from
The Irish Times to cover the story. The short exchanges with William Byrne comfort Lib, a man worldly enough to appreciate her skills and understand the dilemma of a woman trained to care for the sick, drowning in a sea of true believers in thrall to the miracle in their midst.
Like a Grimm’s fairy tale clothed in the fog of religious fervor, where unicorns are ogres and prayers a mantra against reality, Donoghue captures the drama unfolding in Ireland circa 1820, a land devastated by the mass deaths of famine, clinging to faith when the world turns away from them. Captive to the poverty of daily existence, the cottages left bare by death, the faithful breathe the rarified air of belief. It is no surprise, then, when this English nurse falls under her patient’s spell, a vigil so unlike her care of the maimed and dying in the war. Donoghue distributes the secrets of her astonishing tale like a flower shedding its petals, a faint scent of asceticism heady and hypnotic, the inescapable realization of what we choose to believe and reality.